The Unfathomable, Knowable Love of God

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Ephesians 3:17-19

How wide is the love of Christ? So wide that when Jesus stretched out His hands on the cross, he did so for all people, that in spite of our unworthiness, by faith we might be reconciled to God. The width – the breadth – of Christ’s love is limitless, surpassing knowledge and understanding.

What is the length of Christ’s love? Beyond measure. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Jesus has always existed and will always exist, and is the same yesterday, today and forever. His love is from everlasting to everlasting.

How high is the love of Christ? Higher than heaven itself. High enough for Jesus to be seated with the Father in Heaven. High enough that we can be “raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6).

What is the depth of Christ’s love? Deeper than the lowest Hell. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and humbling himself to be obedient to death, even death on a cross. The depth of Christ’s love has no boundaries.

Advent reminds us that God’s love, while unfathomable, is also knowable. How can this be? The answer, of course, is Jesus:

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).

The God who formed the heavens and the earth sent us His son – not with power and glory (that comes later when Christ comes again), but as an infant, born of a virgin in a manger.

Unfathomable. Knowable.

What Child is This is one of my favorite Christmas songs. It is melodic and moving, but more than that it points to the love of God in Christ. The song begins with a simple question: “What child is this?”  The answers we receive are breathtaking:

What child is this?

“The babe, the son of Mary.”

This child is Emmanuel – God with us.

What child is this?

“The King of kings, salvation brings.”

This child is the Messiah, the Savior of the World. This child is the Christ.

What child is this?

“This, this is Christ the King.”

This child is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

For Christians, God’s love is both unfathomable and knowable. But for the many who do not yet know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, the love of God, while unfathomable, is also unknowable. God’s love is unknowable to non-believers because ultimately the love of God is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. It is only when a person places his or her faith in Jesus Christ that the unknowable love of God becomes knowable – increasingly so as we follow Christ as Lord.

Does the love of God compel you to want to share God’s love with others? It should! The Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – is the best news we could ever begin to imagine. The good news is so good that it must be shared.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
Romans 10:15

Finding Common Ground

For Christians, Jesus is our common ground. We may disagree on any number of things, but there had better be agreement on Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Head of His church.  Is this enough to resolve every conflict we may have?  No – but it is always the correct starting point. We may disagree on strategy, tactics, or issues of the day, but our shared unity in Christ ought to compel us to love one another regardless of our disagreement.

But when we interact with people who are unchurched, or dechurched, we are wise to find some other source of common ground, which oftentimes paves the way for a relationship of trust to develop, and may well open doors to sharing the Gospel, and eventually finding common ground in Christ.

An illustration that comes to mind is from an article published in USA TODAY some fifteen years ago.  The article was titled “Enemies Play in Peace,” and it was centered on a group of Israeli and Palestinian men brought together for one week to play basketball at the University of Vermont.  Here are a few excerpts from the article:

At first, the chill in the air at that meeting – not helped by an Arabic-Hebrew language barrier – worried organizers as the two groups sat separately. Then a warmth spread as basketball dominated the talk. Israelis and Palestinians agreed to speak English.

“Sports is a language everyone understands,” said Galily.  “Now it is not us and them here, it is just us.  It is just a small step, but it in the journey it is an important one.”

“This trip has let me see such wonderful guys here,” Kotto, 25, said, sweeping his hand around the lunch table.  “I encourage everyone to understand the other side of things. They are guys just like me.”

Even sworn enemies can find common ground, and when that happens, the possibility of deeper, more meaningful discussion is greatly enhanced.

The story above is a good one, but there is a story in Scripture that is far better.  It’s in John 4:1-42 – the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well.  You’ve probably read and heard this story many times, but I encourage you to pause for a few minutes to read it afresh, and to let the story wash over you.

What an amazing impact one encounter had!  The woman at the well was changed forever, and so too were many in her village.  And, of course, this story has impacted countless others, too. After all, we’re still talking about it, and learning from it, all these years later.

The lessons in the story are many, but for today, let’s focus on the importance of Jesus gradually – and progressively – establishing common ground.  Think about this …

  • The woman was part of a mixed race, with Samaritans considered to be impure by Jews. And yet Jesus stops to converse with her, which in itself is an extraordinary act of grace, given the cultural norms of the day.  The initial common ground Jesus established was simply acknowledging her, rather than ignoring her. And so Jesus fills a basic human need – to be acknowledged, and valued, as a person.
  • Going for water in that culture was hard work. Wells were typically located outside the city on the main road, and women would go for water twice each day – morning and evening.  But this woman, because of her reputation, came to the well at noon in order to avoid being seen by others. In other words, she was ostracized from others in her community.  Yet Jesus acknowledges her, and more than that, offers her “living water” that would remove a person’s thirst forever.  For a person who had to work so hard to get water in the first place, including needing to make the walk in isolation at odd hours, Jesus’ offer was eminently appealing.  She didn’t understand what Jesus meant by “living water,” but she understood full well how difficult getting water was.  Again, Jesus’ words met her where she was at, addressing a significant need.
  • Having established common ground, Jesus is ready to steer the discussion to a deeper place. He instructs the woman to go to her husband, knowing full well that she had already had five husbands and was currently living with a man she wasn’t married to. The woman assumes Jesus to be a prophet. Gradually, by degrees, she is being drawn deeper and deeper into the truth of who Jesus is. Jesus then speaks to her about true worshipers – spirit and truth worshipers – which prompts the woman to state, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming…”
    Talk about progressively unfolding common ground!  She anticipated the coming Messiah, but still didn’t realize that she was talking to Him.
  • By the time Jesus tells the woman, “I who speak to you am He,” there was already a bond of trust built. It started when Jesus addressed the woman, which in itself represented a break from the tradition and custom of the day. It continued when Jesus offered the woman a gift (“living water”) she didn’t fully grasp, but in her mind would remove the physical and emotional burdens she carried in having to go for water alone, and at odd hours. Once common ground was established, Jesus ministered to her powerfully and concisely: “I who speak to you am He.”

Take time to think about the differences you may have with people around you, and ways in which you can establish common ground as a starting point that may well lead to healthier relationships, or even organic opportunities to share the Gospel.

And as you do so, be sure to heed these words from 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

Dismantling Towers

When a pastor, staff member, ministry/department, or governing board works against the grain of a church’s mission, vision, or values, they build a tower unto themselves. The principle comes from Genesis 11:

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’” (Genesis 11:1-4)

Think of it – this huge assembly of people gathered in Shinar (modern day Iraq) and shared the misguided notion that on their own strength, independent of God, they might actually ascend beyond human limitation and to the very threshold of the divine – “to the heavens.”  What could possibly have moved the people in Shinar to take on this kind of building project? The answer, in a word, is pride.

Historians estimate that the Tower of Babel was built around 2200 BC, which means it would have been built around 100 years after the flood.  In the space of a mere hundred years or so, and spanning just a couple of generations, the command of God to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” was blatantly rejected. The people moved eastward, found themselves a nice plain in Shinar, and decided that they would stay there. They were blatantly disobedient, and at the root of their disobedience was pride, which becomes clearer still in verse 4: “Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the earth.”

The people in Shinar were so overcome with pride that they couldn’t grasp reality. That’s the effect pride has on people. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis described the problem of pride this way: “Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”

That’s what was happening in Shinar. The people were so stricken with a spiritual cancer called pride that they were unable to love, or be content, or even think straight.

It’s tempting to dismiss what took place in Shinar as an ancient, humorous little blooper reel in the long history of human bloopers.  But let’s be honest. When we give into pride, we do exactly what the people in Shinar did – we build towers. Not towers of brick and mortar, but towers of isolation, achievement, elitism, recognition.

When a pastor, staff member, ministry/department, or governing board functions in isolation, they build a tower. When they point time and time again to all of the good things they have done, they build a tower. When they work not with others but against others, they build a tower. When they are consumed with praise and recognition, they build a tower.

And so we are clear, tower building is ultimately a leadership issue.  As the leader goes, so goes the ministry (or department, governing board, staff, etc.).  And in the church of Jesus Christ, leadership devoid of followership isn’t leadership at all – it’s tower construction.

In Shinar, the people were united behind their leader, Nimrod, a man that Scripture informs us was a mighty warrior who stood not with the Lord but before the Lord – in defiance of the Lord. Nimrod’s very name means “one who rebels.” What does this hold for today’s church leaders? How about this: Don’t be a Nimrod!

We all have a choice to make: We can focus on ourselves and build towers, or we can focus on Christ and join Him in building His church.

In fairness, most of us are in fact committed to serving Christ and His church in ministry – yet struggle at times with setting aside our own interests in favor of the greater good. I know this to be true because I have more experience building towers than I care to admit. But I didn’t set out to build towers, and I don’t believe that the large majority of church leaders do either.  Instead, towers get built slowly, steadily, and oftentimes unknowingly.

But here’s the good news – there is no tower too big for God to knock down:

“But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.  That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:5-9)

God is extraordinarily compassionate! Confusing their language and scattering the people over all the earth was an act of discipline to be sure, but more than that it was an act of unmerited love. God gave the people a mulligan – a do-over – of epic proportion. God put a stop to their building project in order to save His people from themselves, and to help them turn back to His plan and purpose for them.

There is no tower too big for God to tear down.  If you’ve built a tower, ask God to tear it down. Fall on your knees, confess your building project to God, and recommit to joining Christ in the work of building His church – the whole church.

Five Aspects of Vision

In my experience of working with churches, I have found that discerning and articulating a church’s vision oftentimes brings pronounced confusion and high frustration to pastors and leaders, with much of their angst stemming from misunderstanding what vision is – and isn’t.

What follows are five aspects of vision that help pastors and leaders to understand, discern, articulate, and live into the vision God is leading them to pursue.

Vision is subordinate to mission, and works to fulfill the mission.
There is much confusion in church leadership as to what differentiates mission from vision. Simply put, mission answers the question of why we exist as a church, while vision answers the question of what God is leading us to be in the future to fulfill the mission.

It is my belief that the mission of every church is the Great Commission we’ve received from Christ (Mt. 28:16-20, Acts 1:8). There is no need to discern our mission because it’s already been given to us! Further, we are instructed how to go about fulfilling the mission – to love God with every fiber of our being, and to love people as ourselves (Luke 10:27). Churches may restate their mission if they please, but ultimately the mission of every church ought to encapsulate the Great Commission we’ve received from Christ.

Whereas our mission is given to us, vision must be discerned. Our mission is God-breathed; our vision is God-inspired. Hence while our mission is fixed and lies ever before us, our vision – what God is leading us to be in the future to fulfill the mission – is a variable that changes from time to time.  For this reason, vision must always be “subordinate” to mission.

Vision is borne of discontent.
In Holy Discontent, Bill Hybels makes the case that when a person is discontent over a matter that also brings discontent to God, the person’s discontent is holy – righteous – and instrumental for bringing forth a personal vision that is also holy. The same dynamic is true in churches. Church leaders must pray for clarity about what grieves both ourselves and God, for it is in that place where holy discontent is found, and a holy vision begins to emerge.

Vision is most often discerned collaboratively.
The notion that vision must always be discerned by the senior leader is a myth that puts inordinate and misplaced pressure on a single person, and restricts other leaders from fully stepping into their call to lead. The truth is that vision tends to emerge in a variety of different ways, and through a variety of different people. In some churches, vision is in fact discerned by the lead pastor, but most often vision is discerned through collaboration. But regardless of how vision is discerned, three things must happen before advancing a vision beyond ideation:

First, there must be sufficient leadership agreement on the vision. This means that at least 75% of the leadership team must agree on a proposed vision before advancing it beyond ideation.

Secondly, there must be express agreement from all leaders to promote the vision as a unified, fully committed team. Though some leaders will not fully grasp or have innate passion for the vision, there must be all-in leadership commitment to actively cast and promote the vision.

Thirdly – and most importantly – while the lead pastor does not have to personally discern the vision, he or she must be deeply passionate and wholeheartedly committed to it. Vision rises or falls with the senior leader. If the lead pastor casts and preaches the vision frequently, creatively, and passionately, the vision will become contagious. If not, the vision will evaporate.

Vision comes in two forms: specific and directional.
A specific vision is one in which there exists a clearly defined end point, where the desired destination is known and can be arrived at.  In contrast, a directional vision is one where there is clarity on a direction to take, but not on a specific destination.

Both types of vision have their place, and both are equally viable, and equally biblical. In Deuteronomy 8:7-10, Moses received a specific vision with a clear, unmistakable end point – Canaan. In contrast, Abram (Abraham) received a directional vision to go “to the land I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Never in a million years could Abram have imagined all that God had in store for him. All he knew at the onset is that God called him to a journey, one that would bless him and all peoples. Eventually, the directional vision God gave Abram was followed by a more specific vision to “Look up at the sky and count the stars … so shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5).  God made clear to Abram that he would be the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5).

These two examples reinforce the truth that a specific vision always requires a directional journey (see Moses, who was forced to endure the directionless wandering of the Israelites), and that a directional vision always leads to specific stops along the way where clarity emerges (see Abraham, who spent the last one-hundred years of his life watching the vision God gave him gradually unfold).

Vision statements should be brief, inspiring, and preachable.
You’ve prayed, you’ve dreamed, you’ve discerned, and you’ve gained ample support from your leadership team. Now it is time to finalize a vision statement that is…

Brief and to the point. Your vision statement should be just that – a statement. If you can’t easily memorize it, go back to the drawing board.

Inspiring. If your vision statement doesn’t make your heart race a bit faster, it probably needs some work. Enough said.

Preachable. Your vision must be “preachable,” because it will need to be preached – a lot. A lead pastor I once worked for used the expression “creative redundancy” to describe the need to send the same message over and over but in a variety of different, creative ways. A Holy Spirit-inspired vision will lend itself to being creatively and redundantly preached.

Gospel and Culture

As leaders in Christ’s church, the Gospel must always be at the very center of all that we do, say, and think. We know this to be true, yet we also know that what we do with the Gospel – how we bring the Gospel to people – can be, at times, confounding. Because while the Gospel is unchanging, the people we are called to bring the Gospel to are anything but.  Nations differ, regions differ, neighborhoods differ, families differ, people differ!  What resonates in one culture is offensive in another; what sparks passion in one person spurs anger in another person.

I recall a Human Genome lecture I attended several years ago where the speaker said that because no two people are alike, each person is in essence a unique culture unto him or herself.  So, how exactly do we go about trying to reach over seven billion people, all of whom are unique in countless ways, with the singular, all-encompassing Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Thankfully, no single person or church bears the burden of reaching seven billion people, but we are called to reach people we are in proximity to, and to actively support global missions. And beyond reaching people for Christ, we are to help people become more like Christ. Our call is to venture both wide (“Go …”) and deep (“… and make Disciples”) – in combination.

Easy enough, right? Umm, not so much!  But we do it because we want people to have the same assurance we have, and to experience the same journey we are on – a slow, steady, and at times sideways march toward becoming who God created us to be.  We do it because we know that only Christ can set a person free from the stronghold of sin, and the permanence of death.  We do it because we want what is ultimately best for people, and we get frustrated when they don’t see what we see, and don’t grasp what we grasp.

But I wonder if we’re working out of the wrong paradigm.  I wonder what would happen if instead of trying to figure out why people don’t see what we see, we took the time to try to figure out what they see – their interests, their fears, their beliefs, their doubts, their values, their circumstances … their culture.  Because if it’s true that the Gospel is for all people, then it’s equally true that any success we have in advancing the Gospel message is very much tied to our understanding of, and willingness to engage, people in their own unique setting – in their own unique culture.

This brings us to the crux of the problem, namely that most of us aren’t adequately tuned in to the culture around us.  Is this important?  Vitally so. And it’s biblical too – Paul carried the same Gospel wherever he went, but how he presented it varied according to the culture he was seeking to reach.  But what about us?  The truth is that most of us aren’t sure how to engage the culture, or even whether it’s appropriate to engage the culture.  And certainly, assimilation for the sake of assimilation isn’t the answer, but ignoring the culture altogether isn’t either.  Can we find a middle ground, one where the Gospel is proclaimed and advanced in ways that meet people where they’re at, instead of where we think they ought to be?

Tim Keller addresses this question (and many others) in his brilliant book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Keller affirms the centrality of the Gospel, but makes the point that Gospel movement is contingent on appropriate engagement with the culture. Keller points out that if we over-adapt to a culture, we won’t change people because we won’t call them to change, and that if we under-adapt to a culture, no one will be changed because no one will listen to us.

Finding the right balance, the right middle ground, between over-adapting and under-adapting to a culture is worth striving for. Why? Because when the power – the movement – of the Gospel sweeps through people and churches, the surrounding culture can’t help but be swept up as well.  And as Christians, we have it in us to spur this kind of movement, not on our own, but as called and equipped ambassadors for Christ. May it be so.

Capital Campaign Considerations

Capital campaigns become necessary when a church’s vision far exceeds its present reality.  Capital campaigns can spur marked spiritual growth, deeper unity in the body, widespread sacrificial giving, and stronger faith – if a church is steadfast in keeping their mission as priority one, and has discerned a clear, compelling Holy Spirit-inspired vision, and is honest about their readiness to embark on a capital campaign.

The Mission must be Priority One. While vision, context, and methodology are unique to each church, the mission of every church is the Great Commission given to us by Christ. Before embarking on a capital campaign, church leaders must objectively assess whether a campaign will help to bring deeper mission attainment, or if a campaign might actually lead to mission distraction. For churches that have a track record of holding their mission above all else, a capital campaign will likely enhance the church’s ability to make disciples. But for churches that have a history of relegating discipleship to an afterthought, a capital campaign will likely only further erode the church’s ability to make disciples. Is the disciple-making mission of your church clearly understood, embraced, and held up as priority one? Is the capital campaign you are considering one that will illuminate the mission and help lead to deeper mission attainment?

There must be a clear, compelling Holy Spirit-inspired vision. Vision will either inspire or kill a capital campaign. A clear, compelling Holy Spirit-inspired vision that is communicated with enthusiasm and creativity can turn the driest of bones into healthy flesh. But a vague, uninspiring, poorly discerned “vision” can quickly turn healthy flesh into dry bones. Is your vision clear and compelling? Is your vision inspired by the Holy Spirit? If so, communicate the vision creatively and enthusiastically, trusting that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the vision will stir the hearts and minds of all who hear it.

Leaders must be honest about their readiness for a capital campaign. Capital campaigns require an extremely high level of commitment from pastors, leaders, staff, and congregations. Capital campaigns can be invigorating, but also very, very exhausting, especially for those directly involved. For this reason, it is a good idea for pastors to honestly and prayerfully consider their call to serving the church for at least the next three years.  A pastor – especially a lead pastor – who senses imminent closure to his or her current ministry is cause enough to press the pause button before proceeding with a capital campaign. The staff and consistory leadership must also honestly consider their commitment to a capital campaign. To proceed, key leaders must be on board, ready to lead and eager to contribute.


Unity … in Christ

A shared unity in Christ is the starting point for staff and leadership health and commitment.  Jesus is our common ground.  We may disagree on any number of things, but we must be able to agree that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Lord, and the head of His church.  Is this enough to resolve every conflict?  No, of course not … but it is always the correct starting point.

Make no mistake, the only “unity” that really matters is the unity we share in Christ. Unity for the sake of unity is incomplete, and often leads to unholy alliances. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for people on church leadership and staff teams to be united for all the wrong reasons – a common dislike of a staff member or leader, a stance against the current worship style, a clamoring to go back to how things used to be, or opposition to a planning process and all that it entails.  The only form of unity that advances the cause of Christ is unity in Christ.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a stunning pronouncement of the importance of unity in Christ. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus to strengthen them in the face of growing opposition, both from within and outside the church. Paul immediately set a tone in the letter by using the phrase “In Christ,” or some variation thereof, no fewer than ten times in the space of a mere thirteen verses of Ephesians chapter 1:

“The faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1)
“Every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3)
“Chose us in him” (Eph. 1:4)
“Freely given in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:6)
In him we have redemption” (Eph. 1:7)
“Which he purposed in Christ” (Eph. 1:9)
In him we were also chosen” (Eph. 1:11)
“The first to hope in Christ” (Eph. 1:12)
“Included in Christ” (Eph. 1:13a)
“Marked in him with a seal” (Eph. 1:13b)

Paul wanted the Ephesian Christians to understand clearly that whatever differences existed among them were insignificant in comparison to the unity they shared in Jesus Christ.

As a pastor, as a leader, are you instilling this same understanding in your leadership team and staff?  Does your team function according to the truth that the One who unites us is more powerful than anything, or anyone, who might try to divide us?

The F.A.I.T.H. Filter

faith filter

The F.A.I.T.H. Filter is one of twelve key tools included in Faith-Based: A Biblical, Practical Guide to Strategic Planning in the Church, by Michael Gafa. The filter encapsulates five critical aspects that plans must pass through before finalizing. The filter helps ensure that our plans are:

Flexible … held loosely; able to change as the Holy Spirit leads us.
Aligned … with the Great Commission, and with our mission, vision and values.
Intertwined … synergized and cohesive so that all of our plans represent a plan.
Transformational … so that lives are changed by the grace and truth of Christ.
Holy … set apart to God; consecrated to God; fully surrendered to God.

Allow me to elaborate a bit on each of the five aspects:

Our plans need to be Flexible – held loosely. Why? Because we need to allow space for God to change our plans, and to accept that even if our plans are on the mark, God’s timing likely won’t match ours.

And our plans need to be Aligned – with Scripture, with the Great Commission, and with our mission, vision, and values.

Our plans need to be Intertwined – synergized and cohesive to the point where our plans become a plan – a single plan, one that is comprehensive and cohesive.

Our plans need to be Transformational – they need to help bring people to Christ, and grow people in Christ – in our church, community, and beyond.

Finally, our plans must be Holy – set apart to God.  Granted, unlike scripture our plans aren’t God-breathed, but they should be divinely inspired, prayed up, and fully surrendered to God.

Eight Marks of “All In” Church Leadership Teams

Today’s post is taken directly from Faith-Based: A Biblical, Practical Guide to Strategic Planning in the Church, by Michael Gafa.

Have you ever had the experience of hearing a person say they’re “all in,” and then shortly after, when some form of adversity hits, the person is suddenly “all out?” If you’ve held any sort of leadership role you know exactly what I’m talking about!

Planning requires all hands to be on deck, ready and willing to do what is necessary.  Here are eight marks of “all in” leadership and staff teams:

Everyone is praying.
I have yet to see positive results emerge from a season of planning when prayer wasn’t at the forefront.  Conversely, I have seen amazing success when there is a shared commitment among leaders and staff to be in prayer prior to, during, and after a strategic planning season.

Conversation is marked with grace and truth.
High functioning, fully committed teams emulate Christ by embracing both grace and truth. This allows for hard but necessary discussion to take place without tearing the team apart.  Honesty and transparency are essential, but so too is unconditional grace.

There is an earnest desire to grow and improve.
Effective planning requires that we hold a sort of mirror up to assess where we are at so that we can better understand where God is leading us, and how we might get there.  Self-assessment, both personally and corporately, is painful but necessary.  The antidote to complacency is to earnestly desire to grow and improve, understanding the past and present while working toward a better future.

Collaboration is the order of the day.
There is no single person who can effectively plan on behalf of an organization. Leadership is needed to be sure, but good leadership is not so much about “doing” as it is about empowering, equipping, and encouraging others to contribute.  Collaboration is vital for excelling in formulating and executing plans.

Accountability is understood and embraced.
I have seen planning efforts fizzle as deadlines come and go with seemingly no one noticing.  If leadership accountability is lacking, success in planning will be limited at best.

There is genuine excitement around the mission and vision of the church.
While gaining widespread agreement on every plan element is both unlikely and unnecessary, it is necessary to have leaders who display genuine passion and enthusiasm for the mission and vision of the church.

There is a willingness to stop ministries, programs, or events that have run their course.
In my experience, stopping ministries, programs, or events is much harder than adding ministries, programs, or events.  Our common tendency is to add rather than subtract, but the problem is that most churches are already stretched too far. As a general rule, I advise churches and leaders that any ministries or programs they add be offset with ministries or programs that are stopped.

Change is expected and embraced.
Let’s face it: change is inevitable.  The world is constantly changing, and so must we. What worked twenty years ago, or ten years ago, or even last year, might not work this year.  Our choice is to change or slowly die. How we view change will largely dictate whether or not we are willing to change, and more to the point, whether we will embrace change as a gift or reject change as a hindrance.

Of Kings, Presidents, and Faith

“… give us a king …”
1 Samuel 8:7

In what has been for many the most vitriolic and distasteful primary election in memory, we now know that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party presidential nominee and, barring a complete collapse, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party presidential nominee. For some, this is a welcome development. For others – for many – it is anything but.

Has our nation ever been more polarized than it is today? Perhaps. But not in my lifetime. Still, it is fascinating to watch how this has played out: Scores of committed Democrats who are fiercely loyal to their party, and to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Scores of hard line Republicans who are frustrated by the rise of Donald Trump, and torn about the prospect of a Trump presidency. Scores of Millennials who reject the status quo, and are drawn to the radical reforms proposed by a 74-year old, self-styled democratic socialist. And scores of Trump supporters drawn to the promise of “making America great again.” To quote John Lennon in Nobody Told Me, “Strange days indeed, strange days indeed, most peculiar mama.” Yea, that about sums it up.

But this post isn’t a political lament or statement. It’s not a political anything. Because while what is happening in our nation is concerning, of much greater concern – at least to me – is how Christians in North America are functioning in the midst of upheaval and uncertainty. Many are pressing on, endeavoring to live and love like Christ, advancing the Gospel through word and action. But others – on all sides of the political spectrum – have become consumed with bitterness and paralyzed by fear.

Is this surprising? Not hardly. Because while much in the world has changed over the past 3,000 years, people, alas, have not. Just as Israel demanded a king because, well, the King of Kings wasn’t sufficient for them, we too have a tendency to trust people more than God:

“If (INSERT NAME HERE) becomes our president, then (INSERT CATASTROPHIC RESULTS HERE) will surely happen. But if (INSERT NAME HERE) becomes our president, then all will be right with the world, and those good for nothing (INSERT NAME OF THE GOOD-FOR-NOTHING GROUP) will finally shut up for a few years!”

Or …

“If either of those two rascals (I could use a more severe term, but this is a PG-13 post) gets in, then this will be proof that God is judging our nation for our wrongs.”

Ouch … and ouch. This is the effect that fear has on people. Fear prompts us to gravitate to worst case, “if-then” scenarios and lose perspective that our faith is not to be put in people – or in anything we can see – but in the unseen providence of God, and the absolute assurance of God’s promises.

For those of us who by the grace of God are “in Christ” – this in spite of our ongoing propensity to sin and constant battle to live in accordance with our salvation – we are called not to be people paralyzed by fear, but emboldened by faith.

Sister, brother – your preferred candidate will not make America great again, or move America into new levels of greatness. And the candidate – or candidates – you abhor will not single-handedly cause America to fall into a massive crater dug especially for such a time as this. Don’t get me wrong – who our president is, and what our president does, matters greatly. But for people of faith, what matters most is not kings or presidents, who come and go, but God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. Come what might, God is still sovereign and Christ is still building His Church – in us, through us, and at times in spite of us.

“And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Obey their voice and give them a king.'”
1 Samuel 8:22